When the friendly smiling Kortrijker hails you with a hearty 'Goedentag!', take a moment before replying. Time was when saying the wrong thing to such a greeting would see you on the wrong side of a mace. In fact, the rather vicious-looking spiked medieval club used by the Flemish infantry at the time, was called a goedentag. The locals would tell friend from foe by hailing them, mace in hand. If you mispronounced the reply, you were guilty of being French – and likely dispatched post-haste.
Not that such a historical enmity is taken quite so seriously these days. Kortrijk, the biggest town in south-west Flanders, has recently teamed up with the French-speaking cities of Lille and Tournai, just across the French border. It's now part of the first 'European Grouping of Territorial Cooperation' in the EU, home to some 2 million multilingual people in total. But Kortrijkers remain proud of their part in forging Flemish national identity – particularly at the famous Battle of the Golden Spurs. That epic battle of 1302 saw the French nobility felled by the thousand, in the muddy Flanders fields, by mace-wielding 'commoners' of Flanders. Kortrijk is still known as City of the Golden Spurs.
This town of 75,000 people is also known as university city, with a mix of modern and medieval, heritage textile and new millenium design – and even as something of a shoppers' paradise. It also plays its part in Flanders beer universe, home to several little breweries that punch well above their weight. But the history of this place can't escape that other weighty local – the goedentag mace and its fateful encounter with the flower of French-chivalry.
Of course, the history of this place isn't all about that French-Flanders rivalry. The Romans came here first, and actually gave this place its name. Cortoriacum is what it was called then, as a Gallo-Roman town on the banks of the River Leie, which eventually became Courtrai to the French and Kortrijk to the Dutch. But the city really grew in importance in the 12th and 13th centuries, as wool and linen became its trading staple. Being right on the fault-line between France and Flanders, however, meant it was never going to stay a quiet trading town.
French versus Flemish and those Golden Spurs
It suffered its first serious thwacking from the French in the 13th century, at the hands of King Louis VIII. He destroyed the town after defeating the-then Count of Flanders. The resourceful Kortrijkers quickly resettled and rebuilt the town. Then, in 1300, the French invaded again, taking control of the rich Flanders cities, including Kortrijk.
But when the new French governor of Flanders, Jacques de Châtillon, held the Count of Flanders hostage, rebellion was sparked again. In 1302, across Flanders, the townspeople rose up, and the French were kicked out of all the Flemish cities – except Cassel and Kortrijk. Nearby Bruges even saw an infamous massacre, when anyone with a French-accent was murdered.
That set the scene for the big battle outside Kortrijk, which was still in French hands. The Flemish cities raised their city-militias, and turned up with 9,000 infantrymen and a few hundred nobles. They were equipped with those notorious spiked maces, and equally vicious spears, and were determined to unseat the horse-riding French knights. They numbered some 2,500 from across France, and they also had their own phalanx of thousands of infantry and crossbowmen.
The Flanders militia first laid-seige to the French in Kortrijk, and then prepared their own 'muddy field of Flanders' for the French relief forces – digging ditches and flooding parts of the flat fields outside of the city. Then they set their pikes and goedentags into the wet soil and waited for the charge of the French knights. A combination of cleverly concealed obstacles, and a fierce defence, led to the French armoured charge faltering. French nobles were knocked from their horses in the hundreds, and the Flemish showed no mercy. At least a thousand French knights were killed, and their golden spurs seized as a macabre booty.
Those spurs were hung in Kortrijk's Church of Our Lady for decades after, and gave the battle its name – Battle of the Golden Spurs. Of course, that was only the start of the French-vs-Flemish wars. They were to sweep back and forwards over Kortrijk for most the next few centuries. But as one of the first occasions where all-powerful knights were defeated by lowly, club-wielding city-men, Kortrijkers are justifiably remember this battle above all the others.
Long wait for a bit of peace
The interminable conflict carried on for centuries. It was only in 1820 that Kortrijkers could lift their heads above the parapets (or what was left of them – the city had lost most of its medieval walls and towers). That was when the Treaty of Kortrijk was signed, and the current borders between Belgium and France were finally settled. The city boomed again in the 19th-century, this time on the back of flax-weaving. And textiles remain a big part of Kortrijk's heritage – and its business – to this very day.
War did return to the city, however, in the 20th-century. In 1917 it was an artillery bombardment that knocked the city for six. Then in 1944, three-hundred Avro Lancasters took part in a massive British air-raid on the city (it was a major transport hub for the Germans) pounding much of the city centre into rubble. But, as they've done for most of their history, the plucky Kortrijkers picked themselves up, shook out the dust, and rebuilt. So the city of the Golden Spurs still manages a golden shine to the best bits of its tumultuous, and fascinating, history.
Getting There & Getting About
Lying midway between Brussels and the North Sea coast in the west of Belgium, and pressed up against France, Kortrijk sits in the middle of a network of roads. The A19 comes in from Ypres from the west; the A17/E403 arrives from Bruges to the north, and Tournai to the south; while the A14/E17 links Kortrijk to Ghent in the north, and Lille to the south. So if you're coming in by car, you're pretty much spoilt for choice.
Although the city does have a local airport (the Kortrijk-Wevelgem International Airport) that's really only for private business flights. If you want to come in by air, Brussels airport, 60 miles west, is the only serious option – Lille Lesquin International Airport may be just across the border, but it only serves French and Mediterranean destinations.
Rail travellers fare better, with direct international links from Lille in France, Bruges, Brussel Zuid, Antwerp, Ghent, and Ypres. There is also a direct link-up to Brussels Airport. Rail travel also turns out to be a better option than car, once you're here. This is a city that loves its pedestrians and cyclists. Much of the city centre is pedestrianised, and cars are encouraged to use the out of town park-and-ride services, or one of the many large underground car-parks. In fact cars have to give cyclists and walkers right-of-way across the city.
As you might expect, public transport is excellent here. The main transport links across the city centre, and out to the suburbs, are provided by the buses and coaches of De Lijn. There is also a local train-line from Bissegem, linking up with villages to the west, running all the way to Ypres.
Like many Flanders cities of its size, there's a good range of accommodation here in Kortrijk, from four-star hotels to B&B's to youth hostels. In fact there are 7 four-star hotels here, ranging from the white-washed elegance of the Hotel Messeyne (apparently where the Sky cycle team stay during the many races that pass through) to the unique chic of the 'D-hotel', with its glass-fronted courtyard and 19th-century windmill. One of the best views in town is at the four-star Hotel Broel, which sits opposite the iconic twin guard towers of Broeltorens.
There are also a large number of smaller hotels and boutique B&B's, which manage to combine charm, elegance and a friendly reception, all for a somewhat lower budget. Kortrijk also has a fair whack of cheap accommodation in the shape of its youth hostels. There are two main hostels close to town – the Vlaamse Jeugdherbergcentrale and the Hi Hostel Kortrijk – and several more outside the main ring-road.
Happy campers is something you won't find much of around Kortrijk, though. The city doesn't have any campsites, either in town or in the villages immediately around. You could always throw up a tent at Ypres, which has a few sites, and isn't too far away. What you will find, though, if you're determined to do-it-for-yourself, are a number of holiday homes in the villages around the city.
For the Love of Beer
It might once have been famed for its collection of golden spurs, but these days Kortrijk has as good a claim to fame for its bevvy of golden-hued beverages. For a such a relatively small city, this West Flanders town packs in a lot of breweries – local, artisanal, micro and even pico – not to mention some excellent beer shops, and brown-tinged cafés. If you love beer, you'll be right at home in Kortrijk.
The local session beer of choice is the Bockor Pils (ABV 5.2%), brewed by Kortrijk’s house brewer, Bockor. They have an impressive-looking brew-house in nearby Bellegem, close to the French border. And this is one brewery with beer-making in its blood. The Ghinste family have been rolling out the barrels for well over a century. In fact, the current Vanderghinste Oud Bruin (ABV5.5%) can trace its origins back to those first barrels produced in 1892 (it was then called Ouden Tripel). A malted-mix, blended with lambic, it makes for well-balanced beer of subtlety, which has been a West Flanders' stalwart brown for 100 years.
Another brewer of repute, also outside of Kortrijk proper, is Verhaeghe, found in the village Vichte to the north-east of town. This brewery can trace its pedigree back even further than Bockor, to 1885, and is best known today for its ruby-red ale, Duchesse de Bourgogne (6.2% ABV). This mixed fermented beer owes its woody-fruity notes to being aged for several months in oaken casks. Verhaeghe also have a kriek with a difference – Echt Kriekenbier – which is based on the oak-aged ruby-red ale, rather than a lambic. It packs a hefty 6.8% ABV to warm up its real cherry sourness.
Not so many of Kortrijk's numerous microbreweries. They have made it their business to craft beers that stand out from the bar, perhaps none more so than Gaverhopke. This small brewery-cum-bar, found at the end of Steenbrugstraatstarts, has a monstrous beer on its books – the Leutigen (12.0% ABV). A thick creamy head, with a lactic-acid sourness throughout, many have compared this to the Westvleteren 12, before the latter's recipe was changed in the 1970's.
And last, but not least, is a representative of the tiniest of microbreweries – so small they've coined a new phrase for it – a picobrewery anyone? That's actually in the name of Heulenn's Picobrouwerij Alvinne, a startup barely a decade-old, but which has already made waves nationally and beyond. They brew across a dizzying array of styles – Abbey beers, golden ales, saisons and even stouts – but only in tiny batches, thanks to the small-size of their mash-tun. A non-traditional approach, and the use of commercial yeasts, may put off the purists, but there's no denying the creativity of this tiny brewery powerhouse.
Food & Gastronomy
As the 'capital' of West Flanders, and a town proud of its Flemish roots, the cuisine of Kortrijk naturally has a Flemish feel. But then again, as a town within sniffing distance of Wallonia and France, there are plenty of bistros taking a very French slant to their cooking, too. Throw in a bunch of fast food joints and world food restaurants, catering to the captive student audience, and it's probably safest to say you can get a bit of everything in Kortrijk.
In the streets around the Grote Markt you'll find plenty of café-restaurants serving traditional foods without too much pretension. For example, De Klokke is a great place to stop for beer and basics, well-cooked and well-served. You'll also find the simple staples of frites-and-mussles at many establishments all around town, as well as the pizza palaces and kebab houses that no modern city can seemingly do without these days.
But the thing that really stands out in Kortrijk is the quality of cuisine being served at the high-end of the gastronomic scale. Influenced by the 'food-as-art' approach of nouveau cuisine, the finest of Kortrijk's restaurants serve dishes to stretch the mind – and the wallet – of the diner. Venues such as Table D'amis take a Francophile-style, and apply it to a rich palette of local and international ingredients, for some truly stunning courses. But if you don't want dinner to break the bank, stylish restaurants like T Mouterijtje can bring a touch of class to your meal, for a touch less cash.
Kortrijk also has its own twists on the wider Flemish food-scene – especially when it comes to the sweet side of the palate. Look out for the kalletaart at the confectioners, a light-and-airy combination of cake, pastry, apple and apricot – with a splash of Calvados. Kortrijkse beschuiten are another local delicacy, sugared biscuits that apparently go well with cheese. Peperbollen, despite their name, have little to do with peppercorns, but are instead knobbly squares of fiery gingerbread, traditionally served on Whit Monday.
Shopping & Markets
Shopping is quite a big deal in Kortrijk – it was the first city in Belgium to turn its streets back on the car, in 1962. It now has a thriving pedestrianised shopping area around the Grote Markt, and extending along the shopping streets of Lange Steenstraat, Sint-Jansttraat, Steenpoort and Wijngaardstraat. Here you'll find a good combination of big-name stores, artisanal treats and cafés to retreat to – and not a car in sight.
There are also big purpose-built shopping centres here, further out of town. There's the Ring Shopping Kortrijk Noord, on the outer ring-road, and the Bouwcentrum Pottelberg, close to the railway station in the south. Recently a new shopping centre, 'K in Kortrijk', has opened in downtown, not far from the Grote Markt.
For a more traditional shopping vibe, there are stall-holder markets on the Grote Markt, (and Doorniksestraat and Schouwburgplein) on Monday mornings. The Sint-Amandsplein also hosts a specialist food and drink market once a week, on Friday afternoons.
Sightseeing & Culture
As you'd expect in a town that has been as pummelled by history as Kortrijk, the centre of town is something of a hotch-potch. Some fascinating fragments of historical building are jumbled up with more modern stretches – so it does lack the in-depth architectural story of other Flanders towns. But the sights to be seen are among the prettiest, and unusual, to be found in this part of the world.
Perhaps the most iconic are the Broeltorens, twin medieval bridge towers that reflect perfectly in the River Leie – almost as if they dropped from an illustration in a fairytale. They may look like twins, but they were actually built at different times, and for different reasons. The southern tower (or Speyetoren) was built in 1385 to look-over the town's important river traffic, while the northern tower (or Ingelborchtoren) was built in 1415 as an armory.
Those towers sit in the part of town known as Buda, the river island that is one of the oldest parts of Kortrijk. The main attractions of the Grote Markt are a couple of hundred metres south. Looming over the square is the Gothic hulk of St Martin's Church, which lies on the spot where the city's first church was built, in 650 AD. Its tower is topped by an unusual spire – a short tiered spike, surrounded by four smaller spires.
That matches the arrangement of the town's belfry – the Belfort – across the square. In its case, though, the short spire was built after the grander, planned spire turned out to be a bit on the unstable side. The tower itself looks a little forlorn, a patchwork of stone and brick. That isn't down to the vagaries of war, however. The Belfort was once part of a splendid Cloth Hall, but after a bigger town hall was built on the Schouwburgplein, the buildings surrounding it were knocked down. The Belfort almost suffered the same fate, if it wasn't for loud protests from the locals.
The new City Hall is worth a look at, noted for its High Gothic pointed arches, sculpted chimneys and the intricate Gothic stone mantle-piece in the council chamber. But much more fascinating is the Beguinage, which is nestled in a courtyard between St Martin's Church, and the Church of Our Lady. Its white-washed, red-tiled houses are closed-off from the rest of town, and stepping down these lanes is to step back into the religious past of Kortrijk. There is a museum here, and one of its 41 houses is open to the public.
There are museums-a-plenty here too. The Battle of the Golden Spurs takes centre stage, as you might expect – and in fact there's a museum dedicated solely to that iconic battle (rather grandly called 'Kortrijk 1302: Seven Centuries in One Day'). There's also a museum that delves (literally) into the fabric of Kortrijk's past (the National Flax Museum), while the Broelmuseum houses collections of paintings and ceramics by local artists. And, as the most important Flemish city in West Flanders, Kortrijk is also home to culturally important museums like the Flemish Film Museum and Archive.
Activities & Entertainment
Flemish culture is naturally important here, and the city has several theatres, including the grand neo-renaissance City Theatre, on the Schouwburgplein (Kortrijk's other big square). If you're looking for some edgy modern art, Buda Kunstencentrum has an art centre, with 'in-residence' artists. They also organise the city's five, yearly art festivals, which includes the biggie of NEXT – a multicultural, cross-border effort that celebrates the so-called 'Eurometropolis' (the three-city grouping of Lille, Kortrijk and Tournai).
Music is important too, and the city reaches across musical boundaries. There is a jazz festival in September (the Golden River City Jazz Festival), a spring celebration of classical music (Internationaal Festival van Vlaanderen) in April, while March rocks in with Novarock, a festival in the Kortrijk Xpo that plays it loud. Perhaps the craziest festival time is had in May, when the Sinksen Festival rolls into town. Street art, bizarre parades, music (both alternative and traditional), and even a giant elephant, are mixed up in a glorious celebration of the city's culture.
Away from the noise and spectacle of such events, you can take a more serene glide through Kortrijk on one of several boat tours that cruise the River Leie. Or, if you're feeling energetic, tour the town under your own steam on a bike – this is one of the more cycle-friendly towns in West Flanders, after all. Cycling is also a big tourist draw here, for other reasons. Several professional road races pass through this part of the world, including the Tour of Flanders, the Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne and the Dwars door Vlaanderen. In August, you might just catch some of the Tour de France stars, at the annual Kortrijk Koerse.
B2B & Conferencing
Kortrijk might be small for a city, but it is well-used to hosting events and conferences, political meets and cultural happenings. That boosts its attractiveness for those looking for venues for business meeting and events. It is also well-located, in the centre of road and rail transport links that reach out across Flanders, down to north-east France, as well as up to the Belgian capital. But, because it is small, it makes for a more manageable city for those organising events.
So, unsurprisingly, Kortrijk has a diverse collection of event facilities. Kortrijk Xpo, for example, has 5 large halls right on the E17/E403 intersection. Close by is the AVC Inspiration Centre, with its 5,000 square metres of exhibition space, state-of-the-art facilities and great sustainability credentials. Kortrijk itself also hosts a number of classy hotels, that specialise in providing meeting facilities for smaller events.
Kortrijk can get very creative with the venues it offers for small groups. You could have your get-together on an old cargo ship plying the River Leie (the Boot Oude Tjalk), or in the local brewery (Bockor hire out their visitor centre, in the brewery tower, for small meetings, conferences, and sessions). You could even setup an event with a unique medieval ambience, in the castle-like setting of the Breoltorens.
The local Kortrijk MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conventions, Events) office is especially focussed on helping businesses to develop their convention, meeting and exhibition ideas in the city. It can advise on the logistical side of organizing meetings and conventions, and suggest the best venues and locations. MICE Kortrijk will even help with enquires on the availability of venues, and can help get discounts and special offers from hotels, convention and exhibition centres, and group-booked restaurants.